Information Dissemination to Increase the Utilization of Soil-Improving Cover Crops in the Northeast Cropping Systems

Final Report for ANE91-006

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1991: $0.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1993
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $30,984.00
ACE Funds: $84,502.00
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
Marianne Sarrantonio
University of Maine
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Project Information

Summary:

The work this year centered on development and publication of the cover crop fact sheet series, revision and completion of the cover crop handbook, and the use of selected handbook materials as curricula for a series of farmer workshops. During the winter of 1993, the cover crop database was expanded and fed in anticipation of the writing phase for the factsheets. New files were opened for brassicas, buckwheat and key cover crop grasses (the database previously contained only information on legumes). Pertinent information on all factsheet species was filled in from sources throughout the Northeast. In March and April the factsheets were written, then sent out to various cover crop specialists in the Northeast for comment and review. The sheets were published in July and are selling well, both as complete sets of 20, and as individual sheets.

The Northeast Cover Crop Handbook was further reviewed by farmers during the winter, and final revisions were made in early spring. The manuscript is currently complete after extensive review and copy editing. It is now in the production phase and should be published shortly. Materials from the handbook have been used in a series of workshops on cover crops in the Northeast last winter and this fall.

Workshops were held in Dryden, NY, Kutztown, PA, Worthington, PA, and Pittstown, NJ. A total of over 100 growers attended the workshops, as well as about 25 other agricultural professionals.

Project Objectives:

The overall objective of the project was to take existing information on cover crop management and performance in the Northeast and disseminate it in effective ways to interested growers. A significant subgoal was to generate interest in cover crops among growers who may not have previously considered them as a management option. The objectives were listed in the proposal as the following:

1. To make information on potential soil-improving crops more accessible to farmers via publications, a database, workshops and on-farm demonstrations, and to utilize farmer and extension expertise in the development of these educational tools.

2. To educate farmers about simple techniques that would allow them to estimate the likely nitrogen contribution and other effects of a legume green manure crop on a cropping system.

3. To obtain farmer feedback on species adaptation and workbook methodologies.

Research

Research results and discussion:

Although the project was not designed to generate new findings, there have been significant accomplishments toward reaching each of the stated objectives. Because the three objectives are so interwoven, the accomplishments are presented here by activities.

Publications

Northeast Cover Crop Handbook

The first year of the project focussed quite heavily on the development of a handbook about cover crops written specifically for Northeastern growers. The original outline for the book was submitted with the grant proposal and was to include information on selection of appropriate cover crop species, management of nitrogen using cover crops, and monitoring changes in soil quality occurring from the use of cover crops. It was specified in the grant proposal that the book would be written by Marianne Sarrantonio, then undergo extensive review by both farmers, extension personnel, and agricultural educators at a series of one and two day workshops.

The workshops were held in the fall of 1992 and are described in some detail in the 1992 annual report. The reviewers agreed on only one thing — that this sort of review made great sense when putting together farmer-oriented publications. The largest source of disagreement was regarding whether the publication should take a recipe approach, or a concept-and-example approach. Extension staff and agricultural. educators tended toward the recipe approach, whereas the farmers were more inclined to want to learn the concepts. This indicated to the author that perhaps the subset of farmers that are interested in alternative agricultural management realize the need to learn the underlying principles of agricultural science in order to better be able to experiment and development their own solutions. This could be an important lesson to learn in future development of agricultural education materials.

A fourth review workshop not previously reported was held in Ithaca, New York in February, 1993. It was attended by a small group of farmers and extension educators and was interesting in that the two farmers in this group insisted that they didn’t have time to figure things out on their own, but wanted to be told how, when, why to do things. The author, now thoroughly confused, decided to compromise by adding an extensive appendix to the book which will include specific management recommendations for the cover crop species highlighted in the factsheets. The body of the book, however, will retain its concept-and-example approach.

The manuscript was sent out for additional critique to several of the people who attended the first review workshop in September 1992, and then, after more revision, was sent for external copy editing. At the time of writing this report, the manuscript is complete, the design and cover of the book has been developed, new illustrations are being drawn, and the book is being prepared on the desktop publisher for a printing date early in 1994. If the author had not taken an ungraceful step off a rooftop in early October and been set back several months in her work schedule, the finished product would probably accompany this report. Because of the length of the typed manuscript, a single copy has been sent with this report to Dr. Fred Magdoff, Northeast Region SARE Coordinator (Appendix VII).

Northeast Cover Crop Factsheets

The first step in the development of the factsheets was to gather all the necessary information to make them as useful as possible to Northeast growers. This involved soliciting experiences and experimental results from a wide range of growers and scientists in the Northeast. Of particular interest was planting dates in each of the hardiness zones found in the Northeast, as well as uses for cover crops that are specific to Northeast cropping systems. Although much of this information was already on the cover crop database, it required upgrading and expanding the existing files. Specifically, new files were created for brassicas, buckwheat, and important cover crop grasses, as the database previously contained only files on legumes. Most of this work was completed by the end of the winter of 1993.

The factsheets were written during the spring of 1993 by Betsy Lyman and Marianne Sarrantonio. They were then sent out for external review to a group of extension and university faculty who had expressed an interest. Certain species were reviewed by farmers as well. The list of reviewer can be found as Appendix I. After final editing the factsheets were prepared at Rodale by Anne Schauer on the desktop publishing system and were printed in July.

The factsheets were designed for easy access of information. With a quick glance, the cover crops’ tolerance to cold, heat, drought, flood and shade can be determined. Sections on uses, management, pest problems and varieties available are highlighted. Additionally, factsheet #20 is a summary sheet which can be used to help select cover crops appropriate for nearly any situation. A full set of factsheets are included with this report as Appendix II.

Seed Source Directory

One of the greatest constraints to cover crop experimentation, both on-farm and on research stations has been the difficulty in obtaining seed. In recognition of this, a Legume Seed Source Directory was developed in 1992 (Appendix III). Because seed sources do not change appreciably in one year, it was considered unnecessary to publish a 1993 version, but the database is currently being updated with 1994 seed company information in anticipation of the next directory. The 1994 directory, will include sources for difficult-to-find non-legume cover crops, such as the forage brassicas.

Database

The existing database has undergone important software changes and significant expansion of the contents. Software revision included installation of Advanced Revelation 3.0, deletions of redundancies in the programming, creation of indexing and sorting procedures so that data would be easier to access, and standardization of data for greater reliability in querying. Eleven categories (files) of information now exist: Species Master List, Botanical, Tolerances, Current Management Recommendations, Farming Systems, Current Uses, Cultivar Characteristics, Bibliographic References, Seed Source by Company, and Seed Sources by Species. User help screens have been added to describe the type and/or format of information found in each field.

Information on 9 species of non-leguminous crops were added to the 56 legume species in 1993, bringing the total to 65 species. There are now 100 seed companies/institutions listed as sources of seed for both growers and researchers. Reports can now be readily generated for complete information on any species, bibliographic references, or seed sources. The database was used as the basis from which the factsheets and seed source directories were produced.

A prototype of a runtime version of the database, which will enable one to access information in a user-friendly way but not change information, will be completed on or shortly after the end of the year. This is being handled by a consultant at Rodale Press. If interest in the database is considered sufficient, a fully functional runtime version can then be developed with a moderate amount of additional input, and distributed at cost.

Workshops

The original proposal for the grant suggested that the cover crop handbook be used as a teaching tool for a series of four workshops on cover crop throughout the Northeast. Although the book itself was not published in time for the workshop, materials were extracted and reproduced from the manuscript for the workshop participants (Appendix IV).

The first workshop was held as part of the New York NOFA (Natural Organic Farmers’ Association) Annual Conference in Dryden, NY in March 1993. Planned as a one-and-a-half hour session by Marianne Sarrantonio on cover crop selection, the Blizzard of 1993 afforded a truly captive audience and the session continued for an entire afternoon with the participation of Doug Jones and Eric Nordell, two growers with extensive cover crop experience. About 40 growers attended the session.

The second workshop took place as a twilight meeting at the Kutztown Produce Auction on September 14. This workshop covered the rationale for cover cropping, principles of selection, and a field tour of some August-planted covers. Although the turnout was small (12 growers), it was a worthwhile meeting, as the participants were largely Mennonite farmers who have recently ventured into market vegetable production and who have generally had no previous experience with cover crops.

The third workshop was held on October 28 on the farm of Bud and Carol Glendenning in Worthington, PA. The workshop ran the full afternoon, starting in-doors with a discussion of cover crop selection, then moving outdoors to some hands-on demonstrations of some simple methodologies for estimating cover crop biomass and N contribution. The workshop concluded with a slide presentation of various management techniques for cover crop establishment, incorporation, mowing, etc. in various cropping systems. This workshop was well-attended by approximately 30 growers, as well as several SCS, extension and university (Slippery Rock) staff.

The final workshop was held at the Snyder Farm Facility of Rutgers University on December 7, 1993. There were close to 30 participants (in spite of a beautiful day in deer hunting season). The workshop included cover crop selection and nitrogen management, but since most of the attendees were vegetable growers, the discussion topics tended to focus on using cover crops for weed management and soil improvement in vegetable systems.

In addition to these four workshops, Marianne Sarrantonio presented beginners’ sessions on cover crops at the Rodale annual field day in July and participated in a workshop co-sponsored by the National Park Service, the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture and the Soil Conservation Service in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area on November 3. The reason for the workshop was to encourage renters within the park to use sustainable farming methods. This group represented a new audience for the concepts of cover cropping and interest among the growers was high. Marianne will also participate in a workshop session on cover crops at the ‘Building Partnerships in Sustainable Agriculture’ Conference in Bolton, VT, on December 9 and 10, 1993.

On-farm Demonstrations

We utilized a strategy for on-farm trials we’ve found effective for a first introduction to a new technology that has innumerable options. We send out pre-weighed packages of some of the most effective Northeast cover crops for the growers to plant out in small plots under whatever management system they choose (e.g. bare ground, overseeding into vegetables, etc.). Once familiar with how the covers perform on their farm and what their various characteristics are, then hopefully in subsequent years the growers will select one or two to try out on larger acreage. In 1992 we sent out “Whitman Sampler” of cover crop species out to 23 farms. The sampler included enough seed to plant 500 m2 areas of the following species: hairy vetch, rye, crimson clover, “Woodford” bigflower vetch, rye + hairy vetch, “Forage Star” turnip. Growers were asked to keep a record of some simple observations on the species and to contact us regarding the results the following spring (Appendix VI).

Of the 23 farms that received seed, 12 answered our request for results in writing, although some required gentle prodding. Some growers returned several page letters on the results; one included photos. Most returned the simple datasheet provided to them. Several mentioned under the “Comments” that they intended to expand the trials on their own in the coming year (this was the hoped-for response). The results of the on-farm trials will be compiled and sent back to those who participated, as well as being added to out database. In July of 1993 we sent out samplers to 11 additional growers, and will track their results in 1994.

In addition to the shot-gun approach demonstrations, Leon Weber and Marianne Sarrantonio worked more closely this year with two growers who had conducted screening trials in 1992: Mark Davis of Dover, Delaware, and Alan Rex of Slatington, PA. Both growers were further along in their cover crop experimentation. Mark had a student and staff from Delaware State University helping him lay out and monitor several cover crop species into which he no-till planted corn after killing the cover. Alan was interested in overseeding small grains with several legumes in the spring in anticipation of turning them down for N for fall crops (results of both trials available on request).

Participation Summary

Education

Educational approach:

All the activities listed above were the chosen methods for disseminating information in this project. Since the project is now coming to completion, it is hoped that the publications will carry significant weight for continued dispersal of information on cover crops in the Northeast.

Factsheets are being sold through a variety of channels. They are being sold at the bare minimum cost that is needed to recover printing fees — $6.00 for a set of 20 with a tres chic folder, or $0.50 for individual sheets. New Farm magazine will advertise the factsheets in the January issue. In the past, this has been an effective means of generating sales.

Additionally, several extension people in the Northeast have purchased quantities to sell or distribute through their offices. Sets have been sold at all the cover crop workshops.

The Cover Crop Handbook will be sold through similar means as the factsheets, and will also be available at cost (probably under $10). It is possible that the SARE program may choose to take a role in further dissemination of the factsheets and handbook.

We have already begun filling orders for the factsheets from outside the Northeast. Although the buyers have been made aware that these factsheets contain some information specific to the Northeast region, they feel that there is sufficient need for the general information for it to be worthwhile.

Betsy Lyman has been fulfilling information requests from the database from the beginning of the project. As the project ends, we will still have the capability to access existing data, but will lack funding to upgrade the files. As mentioned earlier, we expect to have prototype run-time version of the database completed this winter.

Project Outcomes

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

The potential benefits of cover crops include the following: addition of organic matter, addition of a biological nitrogen source, leading to decreased reliance on soluble fertilizers, erosion control, reduction of nitrate leaching, weed control, improved soil physical condition, improved disease and insect control, and, of course, landscape beautification. Because it was not the intention of this project to develop new technologies, the detailed potential contributions will not be discussed. The reader is referred to the forthcoming manuscript for a more lengthy discussion of the potential impact in the Northeast from increased cover crop use.

New Hypotheses: We, as agricultural educators may be missing the boat is we assume that farmers are not willing to digest concepts, as opposed to direct recommendations. In the words of one agriculturist, “It’s not agriculture in a can anymore”.

Farmer Adoption

Changes in Practice

It was not the intention of this project to specifically monitor changes in farmer practice due to the information we have provided. We can, however, make some assumptions based on the kind and volume of questions we have been getting at Rodale since the information started going out. First, we feel encourage by the large turnouts and level of enthusiasm at the various workshops, indicating, it seems that the participants are ready to incorporate cover crops into their present management schemes or learn how to use them more effectively. All of the workshops have been followed by an unexpected (and un-budgeted-for) result — growers who heard about the workshop from those who attended began to call for the materials handed out and for detailed consultation on cover crop management. Additionally, the attendees often called afterwards with questions they generated after trying some new cover crop management scheme. Vegetable growers seem to be the group that is most likely to need additional information before embarking on cover cropping. Of those who tried our cover crop screening trial, we know that at least a third have continued to experiment on their own with cover crops.

Farmer Evaluations

Comments gleaned from on-farm demonstration data summaries:

“Fun and interesting. I’m going to do some more work on this type of experimenting” — Lee Bentz, Mt. Joy, PA

“It was interesting to plant the variety of crop you sent and see the results. Will try some again this year and let our pigs graze them. It was great being involved”
— Ron Snyder, Port Clinton, PA

“Got us interested in trying crimson clover on a half acre this fall” — Anne and Eric Nordell, Beech Grove, PA

“Going to try vetch and rye again this fall” — Alan Rex

“Oh boy paper pushers at it again. A 20 or 50 lb bag of each would be incentive to put in the record keeping time.”
— Lady Moon Farms, Selingrove, PA (This grower will not be included in further trials)

Comments from the workshops:

“Cool.”

“Neat stuff. Can’t wait to try it.”

“Do we get free lunch with this too?”

Producer Involvement

Number of growers/producers in attendance at (1993 only):
Workshops: >100
Conferences: >150
Direct Correspondence/Database Users: 30-50

Areas needing additional study

For the Northeast the areas concerning cover crops that require the most immediate attention appear to be:

1. Cover crop management for vegetable cropping systems.

2. Cover crop management as an effective tool in a weed control program.

3. On-farm harvesting of cover crop seed.

4. Plant breeding of existing cover crops to better suit Northeast conditions, particularly selection and breeding of more cold- tolerant winter annual legumes.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.